India’s homegrown vaccine has an uphill climb to gaining people’s trust

Deciding factor.
Deciding factor.
Image: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
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India’s homegrown Covid-19 vaccine has seen it all.

Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, developed in collaboration with the Indian Council for Medical Research, seems to have gone from euphoria to scepticism, mistrust, and now to guarded celebration in less than three months.

On March 3, two months after it received approvals under “clinical trial mode,” Bharat Biotech and ICMR announced that the vaccine has shown efficacy of 81%. This is based on interim clinical trial data, which have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

This comes two months after India’s drug regulator approved Covaxin for emergency use in the country on Jan. 3. The approval took many in the medical community by surprise, given that Covaxin had not completed its phase 3 human trials, and did not have any data on efficacy.

Lack of data aside, Covaxin has also been mired in controversy over allegations from trial participants in the city of Bhopal about violating trial protocols.

Despite these data, though, Indians registering their elderly family members for the vaccine have been wondering if they can choose between Covaxin and Covishield, the Covid-19 vaccine made with the master seed of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Proceeding with caution on Covaxin

On March 2, Poornima Radhakrishna, a resident of Bengaluru, finally registered her senior citizen parents on the government’s Co-WIN platform after several failed attempts. The technological frustrations aside, she was anxious when she realised the platform doesn’t inform beneficiaries what vaccine they would receive. “I finally decided to call the hospital and check with them what vaccine they were administering,” she says.

Radhakrishna says that since there are already so many unknowns currently with the Covid-19 vaccines, she did not want to risk her parents getting a vaccine with no data.

This was a fear that several non-resident Indians expressed for their parents and grandparents living in the country. “I wish they were here, they would’ve gotten the Pfizer vaccine,” says San Francisco-based Sonali Sengupta.

Her fears also stem from the way the government handled the questioning over the lack of data for Covaxin. “It’s one thing to say you don’t have the data, but you’re approving the vaccine because there’s an emergency. It’s quite another when you brand all scientific and rational questions as ‘anti-India,’” she says.

For instance, after Covaxin’s approval on Jan. 3 and the many eyebrows it raised in the scientific community, Krishna Ella, managing director of Bharat Biotech, addressed a press conference and proclaimed that Covaxin was being targeted because it was made in India.

But once the data are analysed, Covaxin could eventually regain the trust it has lost. Till then, the government’s support and confidence in the vaccine may help eliminate vaccine hesitancy.

Building up credibility

Prime minister Narendra Modi took the Bharat Biotech vaccine on March 1 after the vaccination programme was opened up to India’s elderly and those with co-morbidities.

After that, several ministers from his government, including foreign minister S Jaishankar, shared the news of their vaccine shots, specifying that they took Covaxin.

Such public endorsement, for whichever vaccine, was missing in India, given that no ministers or public office holders except healthcare and frontline workers were eligible to receive the jabs. In a LocalCircles survey on March 2, respondents demonstrated a lowering degree of vaccine hesitancy, too.

For Indian states, especially where ministers were sceptical about using Covaxin, this is a confidence boost. TS Singh Deo, a cabinet minister in the state of Chhattisgarh, had written to India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan, expressing grave concerns over the legitimacy of Covaxin.

Once the Covaxin data were released, Deo said he would reconsider the decision after the results are published in a scientific journal.